Mary Barra, who made headlines when she was named CEO of General Motors in December, is back in the news. This time, however, it’s for the wrong reason. General Motors issued a recall of 1.4 million vehicles due to a faulty ignition switch that could cause the engine and electrical system to shut off, and disable the air bag. The recalled part is implicated in the deaths of more than 300 people and is likely to cost GM more than $300 million in repairs this year.
Pundits are wondering just how much Barra knew of the situation and have criticized her for not initially being transparent with stakeholders. Despite the fact that Barra did not speak to the media when the story first broke, she did follow a golden rule of crisis management. She communicated with employees.
In times of trouble, business leaders need to make sure that they don’t underestimate the importance of communicating honestly with employees. It’s imperative that employees hear bad news from you first. Hearing the news from a third party, such as the media, serves to alienate them, may give them false information, and can even hinder your organization’s response. By taking an upfront approach and engaging employees in an open dialogue, you will build support among this influential audience. You might even take it a step further. Empowering employees to become ambassadors during a crisis can play a vital role in your organization’s comeback.
In her letter to employees on March 4, Barra wrote, “Our company’s reputation won’t be determined by the recall itself, but how we address the problem going forward.” Employee communication needs to be a part of that. Just look at Carnival Cruise Line’s mishandling of the engine fire on the Carnival Triumph for proof. In the three days immediately following the incident, CEO Gerry Cahill remained silent, leaving stranded crew members, plus 4,200 passengers, literally in the dark. The lack of communication with employees and passengers gave the media an opportunity to paint a negative narrative that the company is still working to change.
While business leaders want to plan for the best, they must be prepared to talk about the worst — especially with their employees. Like Barra, you can write a straightforward letter. Or, you can appoint a senior-level executive to take to social media for quick updates while you manage the crisis. Keeping your crisis communications team at your left hand and your internal communications team at your right can help ensure that you deliver a unified message directly to your most important audiences.
Do you have a plan to communicate with employees when the news is not so good? Leave a comment to let us know.